Countess Billie
by Leonard Boucher

Countess Billie was the first European woman to enter what was then Mashonaland, Rhodesia - now Zimbabwe. She was disguised as a boy and posed as the male companion of the Counte de la Panouse.
This is her story.

I first became acquainted with the Countess when, as a guest with the Zimbabwe History Society (formerly the Rhodesia History Society) I visited the home of Robert Isaacson situated on Avondale Ridge some fourteen miles outside Harare. There, in the beautifully set-out garden overlooking the hills separating Avondale from Harare, Robert spoke to our group of the adventures, courage and intrepidity of Fanny Pearson who became Countess Billie. It was on the site of Robert's house that Billie and the Vicomte de la Panouse had built three small stone living quarters and on the adjacent land had established a prosperous farm.

Fanny, eager to find a more congenial life for herself, away from Harefield, removed from the routine of farming, obtained a post as Parlour Maid (the site of Albany Chambers is now part of Piccadilly Underground Station). It was there also that she met Edmond, Vicomte de la Panouse. Edmond's family was one of the oldest and richest in France and he had distinguished himself in service with the French Navy. As A.D.C. to Marshall de MacMahon in Paris, his future was secure and an expected inheritance from his father added to the pleasures he planned for future years. His liaison with the famous French opera singer, Marie Heilbron, however, caused his family to disown him and after several unwise and unfortunate financial investments he discovered he was heavily in debt. The one move now open to him was to leave France quickly and find some means of making money. In London, early in 1890, he made plans to travel to South Africa and from there make his way northwards to Mashonaland (later Rhodesia) where, he had been assured, gold could be found - surface gold on open ground, in rivers, under rocks and needing little effort to collect.

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Soon after their first meeting, Fanny, an attractive young lady of eighteen, and Edmond became lovers. As the date of Edmond's departure grew near they knew they were passionately in love, but Edmond had to leave and there was a strict rule at that time that women and children were not allowed to enter Mashonaland; it was newly opened territory, life there was rough and tough, and even some of the most sturdy men - the first pioneers - had quickly given up and returned to a more comfortable life in South Africa. Fanny was not to be put off by thoughts of dangerous wild animals, hostile natives, the burning hot sun or any lack of civilized amenities. She would, she said, cross the border disguised as a man and she would change her name to Billie.

Fanny and Edmond reached Mashonaland in November 1890

After many disappointing months of labour Edmond and Billie went back to Salisbury and gladly accepted an offer to take over Avondale Farm, which was then just a barely profitable smallholding, but it included a two roomed, stone house, and in the circumstances, the possibility of keeping alive.

Countess Billie and the Counte de la Panouse

Women were no longer barred from entering the territory; a Dramatic Society had been formed; Edmond's name had been put forward for election as President of the Salisbury Club; and with the development of Salisbury there were new business enterprises, new homes, bigger and better hotels - there was much to discuss. The farm prospered. Now they possessed a herd of over 300 cattle, numerous chickens and several pigs. Their new home consisted of three separate rooms, neatly set out flower beds, a vegetable garden, a terrace and a dairy. Billie worked from morning until dusk; she baked bread, churned butter and made chicken pies, all of which she would take into Salisbury for sale in the now growing number of shops.

With money to spare Edmond became a favourite guest among the new social elite who were delighted to have among them a real French Count, but there was one vital matter which stood in his way of becoming President of the Club. It was discretely accepted that an ordinary member might have a mistress, but it was essential that the President's character be unblemished. Billie and Edmond were married by Father Nicot at the Jesuit Mission Church in Chishawasha, some 20 kms north east of Salisbury in July 1894.

Then came rinderpest. It quickly swept the whole country; there was no antidote and soon the rotting carcasses of cattle could be seen in every field. Edmond and Billie were ruined. With little assistance Billie had worked hard to make the farm a success but now, with the cattle gone, they could do no more than sell the pigs and chickens and look for other employment. Luckily Edmond was offered work.

In Chimoio, near Beira, Mozambique, a large consignment of goods - farming equipment, rolls of cotton, flour, clothing - awaited transportation to Salisbury; it could be purchased for very little and sold at a high profit. Edmond lost no time in obtaining a wagon and mules (horses were prone to tsetse fly bites, usually fatal) and set off for Mozambique. One late evening when Billie was alone at Avondale Farm, the house was attacked by a group of Impis (African warriors) but Billie managed to escape via the back door and make her way down the Ridge to the graveyard below.

There, behind the gravestone of Trooper J Upington, who was the first pioneer to die in Salisbury, Billie hid herself while the Impis looted the rooms, ripping down drapes, breaking china and glass, smashing the furniture and setting fire to the wooden dairy.

By the time dawn broke the Impis had gone. Billie climbed back up the hill to the house and was pleased to find her precious sewing machine undamaged.

This incident convinced Billie she too should take shelter in the Salisbury Laager. She assisted in making and serving meals for the many women, children and friendly Africans taking refuge there, the Pioneer Corps soldiers and volunteers; she worked with the Nuns acting as nurses tending the wounded, and helped to repair damaged sections of the Laager. Soon Edmond was reunited with Billie and with the end of the Rebellion life returned to normal. Billie and Edmond willingly accepted an offer to manage Sofala Lodge, a boarding house near Pioneer Street in Salisbury.

Harare Police Station now stands on the site of the Salisbury Laager, but several houses can be found in the streets near by which may have been visited or seen by Billie; the old Market Hall remains much as it was when she perhaps went there for provisions. Over the past 50 years it has been a skating rink, a cinema and a dance hall, but recently it has been restored and is once again a market hall.

On August 27th, 1899, Fanny gave birth to a daughter christened Alice Rhodesia; eighteen days later the child died. Possibly it was this sad event which made Billie and Edmond decide to return to England: early in 1900 they boarded a train at Salisbury Station, and departed from Rhodesia and Africa forever.

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Original story and film script
Copyright : Leonard Boucher. 1995

Historical adviser: Odette Lind

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